When beauty becomes fatal

A Swiss-Dutch lady’s slipper rescue operation

by Heini Hofmann

The most striking part of the nectarless lady’s slipper flower is the yellow, shoe-shaped labium.
(pictures Schweizerische Orchideen-Stiftung)

An icon among the native orchids is the lady’s slipper (Cypripedium calceolus). But its enchanting flower became fatal, because unscrupulous collectors excessively plunder and hawk the botanical jewel for bouquets or ornamental garden plants in spite of its protection status. Now an ingenious rescue strategy wants to put an end to this.
In general, Orchids are endangered and therefore protected. Especially the lady’s slipper, the shining light among the native “flower poems”, shows a significant decline throughout Switzerland, particularly alarming in the central and western “Mittelland” (midlands). It is already extinct in the “Jurabogen” (Jura arch) and the greater Basel area.
Reasons for the decline in Switzerland (and in other European countries) are, besides climate and biotope changes, clear cuttings and monoculture afforestations from earlier and more recent mechanical forest use, marginally as well the preference of badgers and wild boars for lady’s slipper rhizomes, but especially the wilful sacrilege of “plant friends”.

Checkmate for flower rogues

Orchid robbery has already existed before, as a photograph of the market place in La Neuveville from 1921 shows, where wild lady’s slippers were openly offered for sale. However, such sacrilege still exists today, as large lootings at Creux-du-Van in Val-de-Travers and near Scuol in Lower Engadine show, where about 2,000 flowering lady’s slipper orchids were completely sinned, although they do not survive in gardens for long anyway. The culprits were never found.
This robbing of orchids is comparable to the poaching of rhinoceroses. While the lady’s slipper’s beauty becomes fatal, it is the rhino’s nose horn, to whom an aphrodisiac (libido increasing) effect was attributed. But because even here, as with the orchids, a total protection is difficult despite strict laws, one tries to obtain a price collapse by throwing sawdust imitations on the market and thus make illegal poaching unattractive.
Such a checkmate principle should now also help the endangered lady’s slipper orchids: They are multiplied in the laboratory and then planted out in nature. At the same time, an indigenous lady’s slipper, selected for longer flowering periods, is cultivated, which – by analogy with tropical hybrids – will go on sale. It is legal and cheaper as well to purchase than illegally plunder on the black market, and it will bloom for almost twice as long. Sometimes Sherlock Holmes methods are more effective than legal paragraphs ...

Idealism and professionalism

However, to multiply lady’s slipper in vitro and to plant it again at original sites proved to be extremely difficult, as first experiments in England have shown, where in 1970 nationwide just barely a single (!), day and night guarded plant existed. In Switzerland, the same goal is pursued by the Swiss Orchid Foundation at Herbarium Jany Renz, based in Basel, an internationally renowned documentation and research institution whose future has unfortunately become uncertain (see box “Tragic development”). Despite this unpleasant situation, former curator Samuel Sprunger and his companion Werner Lehmann, two committed orchid experts, let the spirit of “Orchid father” Jany Renz live on with their ingeniously conceived lady’s slipper rescue operation. However, because the sowing of seeds from wild plants proved to be unsuitable and, vice versa, in vitro culture requires appropriate facilities, horticultural expertise and 24-hour climate control, they looked for a suitable partner.
They were successful in Holland at Anthura B.V. in Bleiswijk, a huge flower nursery near Rotterdam, specialised in flamingo flowers (= anthuriums, hence the company name), phalaenopsis and selected “garden orchids”. They found the ideal project partner in the local specialist Camiel de Jong. Through the teamwork of an idealistic non-profit organisation with a professional private company and thanks the goodwill of the authorities of both countries, an ingenious orchid rescue project has become reality.

Nine cantons already on board!

However, the lady’s slipper project was not easy at all, because Cypripedium calceolus is a protected species and is subject to the Cites regulations, in Switzerland under Appendix II, in the EU even more strictly under Appendix A. Therefore, no Swiss export permit was required for the export of lady’s slipper seed capsules, but Holland required both, a Swiss export and a Dutch import permit. The germination of the seedlings and the subsequent growth of the pre-seedlings in vitro (sterile) is also a difficult undertaking.
In Anthura’s tissue culture centre the seeds are germinated in bottles with sterile nutrient solution before they are put into soil (ex vitro, no longer sterile) and re-potted several times in air-conditioned greenhouses until they are strong enough for planting out after three to four years. In the current pilot test, around 28,000 seedlings were produced, of which around 3,500 are selected for repatriation. Anthura will sponsor the project with around 40,000 euros and, if it works, will in return be able to produce long-flowering plants for trade, which is in the interest of the project (collapse of prices, ban on sacrilege).

In mega greenhouses, the rhizomes are first planted in special soil ex vitro, then repotted several times, until after a few years they are ready for repatriation as adult plants.

The response is encouraging: nine cantons are already participating in the “lady’s slipper project”: Neuchâtel, Jura, Basel-City, Baselland, Berne, Obwalden, Aargau, Zurich and St. Gallen. In April, the coordination meeting of all participants took place at the “Bürgerspital-Gärtnerei” in Basel. The Swiss-Dutch planting teams were assembled so that in June the repatriation plantings could take place simultaneously in all nine cantons. Where exactly, will be understandably not communicated, with one exception: on the Älggialp, Obwalden, in the centre of Switzerland, a visitable, fenced in reference facility is being built.

Win-win for all!

In short, the beneficiaries of this courageous marriage between idealism and professionalism in favour of the “birds of paradise under the flowers” are both countries and nature itself. Switzerland can save its orchid icon Lady’s Slipper and the Dutch company can establish an additional mainstay. If this pilot project proves to be successful, other countries with extinction of orchids will also jump on the bandwagon. There are already interested parties. Finally, this can help nature throughout Europe. So in the future it will no longer be called “Tulips from Amsterdam”, but “Orchids from Rotterdam”…    •
(Translation Current Concerns)

Tragic development

HH. It began hopefully: The most important amateur orchid systematist of the 20th century, Jany Renz (1907–1999), chemist and Sandoz director in chief, bequeathed his private collection on orchids, one of the largest and most valuable in the world (thousands of books and herbarium from around the world), the University of Basel, where she found a home at the Botanical Institute. The Swiss Orchid Foundation at Herbarium Jany Renz, founded in 2001, became the trustee.

Practice-oriented objective

This is how a unique orchid competence centre was created at the Rhine‘s knee, where researchers from all over the world handed the latch. According to long-standing, dedicated curator Sa­muel Sprunger, “the aim of the Orchid Foundation” is “research and protection of wild orchids on a national and international level and advises decision makers in politics and business so that future generations can still enjoy orchids”.
Under his aegis, the immense collected material was digitised and the orchid literature catalogued. With the Swiss Orchid Research Award (SORA), the foundation has awarded an annual prize for research in the field of orchids since 2006.

The big disillusionment

Because today field research and systematics are no longer a priority and laboratory science dominates, the entire Jany-Renz legacy was complimented out of the sacred university halls in 2016 and stored in Bottmingen BL in a carpentry building for subtenancy. Library and herbarium separated, the future uncertain. The Orchid Foundation also had to move, and the continuation of its commitment is at risk.
The Swiss Orchid Award has already died. What once earned worlwide admiration is now passed in mourning in an involuntary deep sleep. If no prince kisses it awake, it will end in oblivion. The worldwide orchid community cannot understand the checkmate of this world-famous research cultural asset. What is currently still running, such as the lady’s slipper orchid rescue operation, is based on heart and soul of idealists.

Not a good testimony!

A highly decorated scientist from another department, who has also collected a research library that is unique in the world and who finally had to help it to stay safe on his own initiative, formulates it in his frustration: “It is a tradition that universities – for lack of space or simply for lack of interest – segregate cultural assets. They obviously don’t feel responsible for their own history anymore.”
(Translation Current Concerns)